In Which I Discover that “Just Friends” May Actually Be a Higher Order of Relationship than Dating

Confession time: I have a friend who is a guy. We have been purposefully spending time together for about four months now. We give each other hugs and we talk honestly about what really matters to us.

And we are “just friends.”

Before you laugh at me and tell me I am setting myself up for heartbreak and failure, hear me out. Believe me, I have undergone all manner of agony of the heart over the last several weeks as I have tried to sort out my emotions and my better judgment, my thoughts and my feelings, and which of them are beyond my control and which ones I should listen to and which ones I should act in spite of. It has not been fun, comfortable, or settling. I have passed from attraction and a desire for a relationship, to panic and the desire to back out of said relationship before it got dangerous.

None of those options are what’s happening right now. You see, my friend and I have had several honest heart-to-heart talks in which we have concluded that what both of us really want, at least for the time being, is to remain “just friends.”

But there’s a little problem. Several months ago, as soon as we really began hanging out, I began to see this friendship as having the potential for “something more.” And along with that thought came the inevitable CHECKLIST. You know, that list of qualities that you want to find in a future mate.

I think that most girls… or most single people, for that matter, have a sort of CHECKLIST. My CHECKLIST today is vastly different than it was when I was fourteen; back then, brown hair and brown eyes were near the top of the list, after, of course, “Christian.” As of this summer, heading the list (after the inevitable “Christian”) was something along the lines of respecting my independence, seeing me as an equal and a friend instead of a prize to be won.

So when my friend and I went to see Taming of the Shrew in late August, and he surprised me with his displeasure at the “taming” of Kate, saying she was beautiful when she was herself and shouldn’t have to be changed, I was shocked and deeply pleased. On the way home, we skipped small talk and had a deep discussion about women’s roles in society. I am ashamed to say that a checkmark appeared atop my CHECKLIST.

Another of those items on the new and improved CHECKLIST was that I would end up with someone who was a friend before he was anything else to me… a good friend. Just so happens that I’ve known this friend over five years now. And neither of us called what we were doing “dating” nor did we really consider it such. Another check on the CHECKLIST.

So I checked off items on the CHECKLIST and frowned over other items that weren’t there, not realizing till last night that all the while a more sinister side of the CHECKLIST was emerging.

For one thing, the very fact that I was using my CHECKLIST proved that this was no “friendship” to me. Because, you see, my version of friendship does not include a CHECKLIST. Ever.

To me, friendship starts in a couple of ways. It usually starts with mutual interests. But it grows from there. It grows with trust, with confiding in each other, with shared experiences and emotions (be they laughter or tears, over real-life struggles or characters in a movie). And, for me, a friendship is on its way to being truly deep and lasting when my friend needs me, comes to me, and lets me help them. The friendship is solidified further when I choose to turn to that friend in a time of personal distress, when I am the one in need.

It’s as simple (or complex) as that. There is no CHECKLIST involved. I have friends with deep emotional needs. I have friends with criminal histories. I have friends with very different moral codes and different beliefs than me. I have friends who drink now and then and friends who believe that even cooking with alcohol is a sin. The only thing that has ever made me turn away from a friend was the horrific realization that they were not my friend in return and that the relationship was in fact damaging me in ways that I needed to stop. If I have any “friend CHECKLIST,” that, or the lack thereof, is the only item on it.

The result is that I try my best to love my true friends as unconditionally as I possibly can.

And the problem with a CHECKLIST is that it is conditional.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one should enter into a serious romantic relationship without deeply evaluating the other. I believe that a lasting, strong marriage (which after all is where a serious romantic relationship leads, at least in my thinking) is not entered into lightly or without seriously considering how well the two people actually “work” together. A lifelong partnership is serious business and demands deep evaluation of oneself and the other.

I am, however, saying that calling a relationship “just a friendship” while at the same time subjecting it to the rigors of the CHECKLIST is living a lie and being vastly unfair to the other party.

It’s also making friendship conditional and imposing the CHECKLIST on something it was never meant to evaluate.

When I realized last night that this was what I was doing, I realized why “just friends” was beginning to feel so uncomfortable. I also found myself at a standstill, staring down at two separate forks in the road.

If I took the “just-friends” path, as we’d discussed, I would need to set my CHECKLIST aside. I would need to commit to the ultimate vulnerability: care for another, allowing him to care, allowing us to continue to talk about what really mattered to us without immediately passing judgment on each other. Taking this path would mean, for the moment, setting aside even the consideration of a romantic relationship. Yet a large part of me, the part of me that created the CHECKLIST to begin with, fears where this path may lead: that my affection for this person, deepened by friendship, might accidentally lead me into a relationship that wouldn’t work because of our differences (the differences highlighted by the items not checked off on the CHECKLIST). It sounds like a path for a naive, foolish, optimistic person, exactly the person I am trying my hardest not to be these days. I am afraid of the pain that could lie at the end of that path.

The other path involves continuing the friendship, with the goal of, at some point in the future, determining whether or not a relationship will work. This path sounds wise, until I realize that it implies the continued use of the CHECKLIST. I may try my very hardest not to use it, but with such a goal, the CHECKLIST will always remain in my subconscious.

The first involves a staggering, ridiculous kind of trust, as well as a turning away from something I deeply want.

The second involves violating one of the deepest principles of my being. Furthermore, it involves a kind of lie. On this path, my mouth is telling the person something different than my heart is inevitably doing.

Hmm.

As difficult as the decision is, I’m sure you can tell which path I took by the very words I am using to describe them. And I will tell you what led me to choose the “friends” path.

It is because I truly care about this person.

I care about keeping my word to this person. I care about telling him the truth when I tell him that he can talk to me about anything. I care about meaning what I say when I say he is my friend. I care about his questions and his needs and his heart. And I don’t want to damage those by saying one thing and really doing another. I want to really care, with no reservations. I want to be his friend. And I think I want to be his friend much more than I want to be his girlfriend.

I cannot be his friend if I am constantly holding him up to a CHECKLIST. It just doesn’t work that way.

There may come a day when the two paths cross. There may come a day when evaluation is once again necessary. Maybe, if that day comes, we will both have changed to fit each others’ CHECKLISTS. Maybe we will evaluate each other and realize together that anything other than friendship just won’t happen. The paths may cross, but I am not counting on it.

Wish me luck. It’s going to be an adventure, and we all know that they are nasty, uncomfortable things, that make you late for dinner.

But if Bilbo’s example is any good, they can also be an opportunity to be completely transformed, to have rough edges knocked off one’s soul, for the friction and trouble to polish one until one gleams. Adventures are good things.

And I’m up for one called friendship.

Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.